In this episode, Manon van Essen – founder of Magioni – is revealing the ugly truth of what it takes to be an ambitious entrepreneur. Manon shares her fascinating path – from baking 10 vegan pizzas a day in her kitchen to trying to define the ideal recipe to fill in the shelves with Magioni products at Albert Heijn, Jumbo, Superunie, etc. What was the biggest push for Manon to become an entrepreneur? We’ve summarised the highlights of our talk with Manon in this article.

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What was the most important decision you’ve made with regard to your business or entrepreneurial journey?


I think one of my biggest decisions was moving to Amsterdam, and getting into a group of very entrepreneurial people. We worked together in a startup-like building, so I learned a lot from their experience because I come from a small town, therefore I didn’t know about all the possibilities until I came to Amsterdam. Moving to the capital really helped me to gain the connections I needed to found my company as well as understand that I should aim globally with whatever business I initiate, instead of narrowing down my focus to the Netherlands only.

You’ve founded multiple companies throughout your entrepreneurial career. Can you take us through your journey real quick?


I’ve always wanted to be in tech. I liked the scalability of the environment, so I decided to shift my entrepreneurial focus to tech. Back when I was still studying, companies that made it to the Deloitte Fast 50 list were all working on a digital product. Large companies, such as Hallmark were doing digital greeting cards, or enabling you to upload a photo album online. So my first thought was – ‘Can I create something that would add to this?’. As a result, my idea was to create software that would get your personal handwriting and transform it into a real-time font. I eventually sold this solution after a few years, and this is how I started my journey.

For my second venture, I wanted to go for a bigger impact and serve the needs of people from various socio-economic levels. This is why I shifted to the food industry – I focused my next venture on creating affordable salads for everyone. It was quite a shift for myself since I moved from creating online solutions to getting a 9m2 space in Foodhallen and doing everything by myself – from organising the space, to making, and selling the salads. So it wasn’t a great experience, which is why I decided to sell my shares to my co-founder and get out of the business.

This way, I had the experience from my tech company that showed that if you build a good solution, the business becomes very scalable. Also, from my salad brand I learned that I’m really passionate about creating something that people from different backgrounds can enjoy. Pizza is one of those universal dishes that people love across the globe. Plus, I saw that cauliflower pizza bases become trendy among home cooks in the US. This is how I got to the idea of founding a guilt-free pizza brand that became Magioni.

How did you experience the process of finding the ultimate pizza recipe that you could scale for Magioni?


I just decided – ‘Okay, I’m going to bake 10 pizza recipes in my kitchen every day’. In a few weeks, I had something that I could call pizza. Though the first version looked hideous, I thought to myself that I could sell it one day – I really believed in this concept. Then I looked around in my neighborhood and went in to ask a local pizzeria if I could help them create a healthier pizza menu next to their normal pizza menu. And so, I started testing what works and what doesn’t by directly asking customers for feedback. This was a very important moment for the brand because I could test my pizza among 3000 people before committing to that one recipe. Plus, I could use this result when reaching out to a supermarket to be featured on their shelves. Essentially, that was the proof of concept for Magioni.

Now that you had your proof-of-concept, how did you scale Magioni to the industrial production levels?


Once I got my proof-of-concept and tweaked the recipe to what it is today, I quit working for the pizzeria and started working on my business plan. I had some tech connections from my previous businesses, so I sent them out an email with the note that I am hiring angel investors. I used the word ‘hiring’ instead of ‘seeking for’ on purpose, and luckily got three investors who wanted to invest in the company. One of them was Abel Slippens, the founder of Sligro Food Group, who had a lot of experience in the field and also on a personal level I had a lot to learn from him. So, this way, I decided to choose him as Magioni’s investor. And at that point, I was in talks with Albert Heijn about getting Magioni in their supermarkets.

There is a funny story, when it comes to arranging the production side. My uncle has a professional services company, which meant that during my school breaks I used to work a lot at different factories, even at one that was producing focaccia and pizza. This experience came in very handy as I already knew the ins and outs of the process. So that side of the business was all set, and that factory is still – to this day – the producer of Magioni pizza.

Did you have global ambitions from the very beginning or was the Netherlands your initial focus?


I thought internationally from the very beginning. In the first year of Magioni, we’ve already been active in nine countries and we had a lot of requests from the US as well. But then scaling fresh pizza is really hard, when you have to be shipping it to the US, so I narrowed down my ambitions to Europe.

What did it take to get where you are today?


I think it’s a result of all the small steps that have been taken throughout the years with Magioni. In the beginning, you start with 30 stores and move towards 50 stores. You’re introducing a new product, expanding to the UK. So, you celebrate the small successes, and when you look back, it’s already been five years. Then you realise that all the small steps resulted in a big success. But this is not what you see when you’re working on your product every day, trying to improve it, trying to create a fanbase. I think my biggest success was word-of-mouth. People liked my story and they shared it with other peers. And another very important success factor is a quality product. Magioni pizza is the best-selling chilled pizza product in the Netherlands. It sells even better than the traditional pizza, which for me is the biggest proof that the product is good.

Were there any crucial hires for Magioni’s growth?


For me, it was a very important lesson to hire people that are different from me. I made the mistake of hiring people who were very good in marketing when I needed professionals in logistics or supply chain. Also, in the beginning, it’s really easy for you to get people on board who are passionate about the idea, but at some point, those people don’t match with the company culture anymore. Your company’s needs change as you grow, so there comes the time when you need very good professionals, with hands-on experience in the FMCG environment.

How do you see momentum vs. precision?


For Magioni it was a big momentum of healthier alternatives. I think you always need momentum to start a business, because if the time is not right, even the greatest of ideas will not take off.

Could you think of one or two decisions along the way that you thought were absolutely the right thing to do, but they ended up being completely wrong?


I think I could have hired experienced people earlier on, but I didn’t believe they wanted to come on board, because I thought the company was too small to get really talented people in your team.

What’s your next horizon? Do you have any future plans?


I always said I want to be an investor and now that I have a bit of seed capital, I want to start my own investing company with a particular focus on food/food technology startups. And this is what I am learning about now.

Since you were quite profitable from the early days, why did you decide to bring in an external, foreign investor?


There are a couple of reasons why you would need an investor. Number one is – if you can bring on money to grow faster that will create infinitely more value for the shareholders, if that’s what you are aiming for. You only want to bring in money if you know that you can grow even faster with that money, otherwise, what’s the point? Number two, additional capital allows you to be more competitive in the market. So if you don’t take that VC money, you’re missing out on an opportunity, because somebody else will do it.

We had big ambitions. For me it was never about getting rich, it was all about – where can we take this company? If you can’t invest in hiring more people, because you don’t have the cash flow, you’re just stopping your own growth. In SaaS, the faster you grow, the more money you are going to need, because of very high acquisition costs.

How did you go about finding your investor?


I didn’t really know much about that whole investment scene, it was a black box. I didn’t even know what a VC was, so I had to look it up. And that was in 2009/2010 when we started getting some investor interest. I started reading more and more about VC funding and we got into more discussions with potential investors. I think it’s very important to have as many conversations as possible so that you can figure out what the exact needs of your company are when it comes to funding. It took a year or two to actually do a funding round, so it wasn’t a quick process, as we had to make sure we were ready to take that commitment. It is also very easy to underestimate the amount of cash you’d need. I remember I didn’t know what to do with $5m, and I’ve been told by investors that next year I’ll need much more than $5m. And that’s exactly what happened. So I’d say you can easily double or even triple the amount of money you think you’re going to need. This way you can get you through the first couple of years comfortably because you don’t want to go through that funding process over and over again. It slows down the business and is overall a very grueling process.

Were there one or two instrumental hires for Bynder?


I think it’s really important to understand that even the best hires of the time might not last more than a year or two. I made that mistake a couple of times. If people don’t grow with the company, then they should find something else for themselves (within or outside of the company). You might find the perfect CFO or CTO, but it becomes a completely different role as you scale. So it can happen that people that you hired a year or two ago will not be able to keep up with the changing role.

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